Friday, November 25, 2011

Creature Feature: Velociraptors.


Raise your hand if you have ever seen Jurassic Park. Although the Tyrannosaurus was flaunted as the 'big predator' of the movie, everybody knew that the real terrors came in the form of the smart, human-sized Velociraptors. They could open doors. They hunted in packs. No matter how scary that T-Rex was, the raptors were more chilling.

Alas, the raptors we remember were not the real McCoy. They were closer to the scythe-clawed Deinonychus in terms of size and general design. (Deinonychus was not in the same genus as Velociraptor, but, at the time, it was still considered a raptor.) True Velociraptors were about 6 feet long from snout to tail and probably weighed around 35 pounds. As later Jurassic Park films would add, real Velociraptors had feathers. That Thanksgiving turkey just got badass, didn't it?

Velociraptors, like many feathered dinosaurs, were first discovered in Mongolia - a footfall away from China, the land where dragons come from.  There are two species in the genus and plenty of fossilized specimens. Like most cool dinosaurs, Velociraptors lived during the Late Cretaceous period - right before a meteor drove them to extinction. Hey, all the cool kids were doing it.

Like Deinonychus, Velociraptor had raised dewclaws. They were not nearly as menacing as the clicking nails in Jurassic Park. Although they may have been used to slash at each other (much like the spurs on cockerels), they were weak and more or less vestigial. Nobody knows much about how Velociraptors hunted, or even if they attacked in packs, but they were likely at least social enough to have death-matches between individuals. Tooth marks have been found on a (probably scavenged) Protoceratops as well as other Velociraptors.

Velociraptors were almost like roadrunners or secretary birds in terms of how developed their feathers were. A fossil of a Velociraptor limb showed very clear quill knobs, meaning that there were some very big feathers. Most paleontologists assume that the Velociraptor was flightless, but no flightless bird today has large enough quill knobs to prove it. The feathers may also have served another purpose, such as thermoregulation or courtship displays. Remember, kids: that turkey was far more badass a few million years ago.


Yes, I still hate Thanksgiving.

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